‘A Combined Barricade and Ammunition Wagon’… The Legion of Mary Book Barrow

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), News, Volume 8

On 7 September 1921 fifteen women and two men met in Myra House, Francis Street, Dublin and established the Association of Our Lady of Mercy. In November 1924 a Central Council for the Association was founded and finally in 1925 the organisation changed its name to the Legion of Mary. In 1927 the Legion had thirteen praesidia (a praesidium is the organisation’s basic unit) in Dublin and the time was considered right to move outside the city and abroad. A start was made with the founding of a branch in Waterford and the establishment of a presence in Scotland in 1928 and England in 1929. The organisation eventually spread throughout Ireland and into many countries around the world. By the 1930s, in addition to Ireland and Britain, the Legion was active in France, Canada, Nigeria, South Africa, Calabar, the Cameroons, French Equatorial Africa, Angola and Kenya. Within two more decades it had been established on all five continents.
The Legion aimed ‘to set abroad a leaven in the community, influencing every home, shop, factory, office, and every other sphere in which its members may be placed by circumstances’ and put great emphasis on the effectiveness of the personal approach in influencing the general public. To facilitate such contact the Legion of Mary in Dublin introduced its first book barrow to Dublin sixty-five years ago, in the summer of 1935. It was felt that a permanent visible presence on the capital’s streets would aid the recruitment of active and auxiliary members; remind passers-by of their religious obligations; motivate lax Catholics to return to the regular practice of their faith; and generally make a contribution to the salvation of souls through the sale and distribution of Catholic literature.
On 23 June 1935, the barrow, fully licensed for hawking and street pedalling, set off from the Legion’s Morning Star Hostel and commenced operations at the junction of O’Connell Street and Cathedral Street. It maintained its presence in the street, weather permitting, every evening from 7.30 to 10.15, and on Sunday mornings. The first evening proved particularly encouraging with the barrow Legionaries selling thirty-six booklets, four tesserae (the Legion’s prayer cards), one Legion Handbook and recruiting three auxiliary members. Over the next four weeks members of several city praesidia manned the barrow until, on 23 July, responsibility for the work was taken by the Praesidium of Our Lady Spouse of the Holy Ghost—previously a study praesidium only. By the end of the 1930s it had been joined by two other barrows.
During that initial four week period 1,309 pamphlets and booklets had been sold and 172 auxiliaries enrolled. Figures for the Cathedral Street barrow, from August 1935 to March 1937, show that 11,534 such publications and ten dozen journals were sold. Also, 815 auxiliary, seventy active, four adjutores (priests and religious who become auxiliaries), and thirteen junior members were recruited. The Legionaries did, however, point out in their reports that, as the average time spent with these potential members was limited to five minutes, it could not be stated that they were all ‘first-rate contacts’. Their perseverance as members depended, in the main, on concerted follow-up work.
The barrow’s stock was, in general, composed of two-penny booklet and pamphlet literature, published by Catholic publishing firms and societies in Ireland, Great Britain and the United States. While literature on a wide range of Catholic interests and issues was available for purchase, particular subjects were especially popular: matrimonial matters; the Catholic perspective on communism; Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum; and the lives of the saints, particularly St Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases.
Book barrows were not unique to Dublin or even Ireland in the 1930s. In Toronto on 13 July 1939, three members of Our Lady of Visitation Men’s Praesidium left St Patrick’s Church and took to the streets with the city’s first book barrow. The Legionaries believed that this ‘box on wheels…contained dynamite’  such was its power to influence the people of the city who came into contact with it. However, the ‘dynamite’ could explode prematurely and as a Canadian member pointed out for the benefit of his Irish colleagues in the March 1940 Maria Legionis (the Legion’s journal):

On one occasion we were put through the third degree by our local police. It seems they were on the look-out for the source of communistic propaganda that had been flooding the city, in the form of pamphlets and handbills. Noticing we had some literature on the barrow with such titles as: Atheistic Communism, Just What is Communism?, The Tactics of Communism, etc., they felt quite sure that they had caught up with the culprits. However, we soon proved to the gentlemen of the law, to their entire satisfaction, that we were the direct antithesis of those whom they were seeking. They apologised very profusely, congratulated us on our good work, wished us success, and left us in peace.

While the work of Dublin’s barrow Legionaries may have lacked excitement, it did not lack interest, with the members frequently engaged in debate and discussion with ‘Communists, Freemasons, British Israelites and Protestants of various sects’. Indeed, when enquiries were received from non-Catholics, the Legionaries endeavoured to maintain contact with them, keep them supplied with Catholic literature and, if possible, arranged an interview with a priest.
Over the years the book barrow became a regular presence on the city’s streets, instantly recognisable by generations of Dubliners. For the Legion, it started as ‘a combined barricade and ammunition wagon’ and became ‘a veritable outpost and stronghold of Mary’s army in the territory of the enemy’.

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